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THE SILVER MANE and stylish suit looked right out of central casting. More than two decades later, I still remember United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello holding forth with a group of editorial writers in a conference room at U.N. headquarters in New York.
With his lightly accented English, the dashing and handsome Brazilian expert on humanitarian operations captured much of what is best about the world body.
Far from the entrenched bureaucracies in New York, Vieira de Mello was a nimble and nuanced roamer of the world. He would do important work to save lives in the new nation of East Timor a few years later.
Often mentioned as a future U.N. secretary-general, Vieira de Mello had helped clear bombs in Cambodia, negotiated the release of hostages in Fiji and aided refugees in Mozambique.
His distinguished service to the world would end in August 2003, when a massive bomb struck U.N. headquarters in Iraq, where the 55-year-old Vieira de Mello had gone as a special representative. He would die, along with 20 colleagues, amid the rubble--a man of peace struck down by the purveyors
I think a lot about Sergio Vieira de Mello when I hear so many Americans attack the United Nations for its incompetence and uselessness. He reminds me of the high purposes for which the world body was created, and which still guide its best efforts.
You can find the story of Vieira de Mello in a new book by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, titled "Interventions." It's the best book about the United Nations of the many I've read over the years.
Don't expect Annan to seduce you with introspection. Nor will some critics be satisfied by his lack of a full mea culpa for some of the shortcomings of his U.N. service--the failure to do more to stop the Rwandan genocide and the corruption in the Oil for Food program in Iraq.
But Annan offers a clear, thoughtful and persuasive case for why the U.N. is still useful, and why it hasn't been able to accomplish more.
Annan's bottom line is that, though the secretary-general has some leeway, he and the rest of the staff of the world body must still draw much of their power and support from the U.N. Security Council--a body wracked by fundamental disagreements among member nations. That division made it all but impossible for Annan to rein in the violence in Syria this year as a special U.N.-backed mediator.
Yet even with those restrictions, Annan found a way as secretary-general to push the world body into a new era. His greatest legacy was to restore the meaning of "we the peoples" from the Preamble to the U.N. Charter. For too long, the United Nations had been restricted from helping those in need by unreasonable deference to its member states over their internal affairs.
Under Annan, the world body moved toward a new doctrine incorporating the "responsibility to protect" endangered people all over the globe. That he was able to establish that principle, in the face of stubborn resistance, particularly from the developing world, is nothing short of a miracle.
The "responsibility to protect" is clearly in evidence in the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which I visited in May. Among the teeming masses of displaced people from two decades of war, the blue helmets of U.N. humanitarian forces stand out as beacons of hope.
There is no military intervention planned, no formal execution of the "responsibility to protect," but the situation remains tense.
Anglican leaders in the DRC say the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, with half a million more people displaced by recent fighting involving renegade soldiers.
You can help by sending donations to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, 110 W. Franklin St., Richmond, Va. 23220-5095. The diocese is helping the Anglican Church of the Congo to care for the victims of violence.
As for the longer-term issues, there are no easy answers. But the legacy of men like Sergio Vieira de Mello reminds me that the possibilities for peace and justice are enhanced by the existence of the United Nations.
Ed Jones: 540/374-5401